How Alex Haley’s Roots, and the U.S. Census gave white America an identity crisis.

Mom? Who are these people?

Following America’s Bicentennial in 1976, and missing its “Bicentennial Minutes”, Americans felt a bit let down.  First of all, we had trashed our homes with all sorts of red, white and blue “Americana”, but all those spread eagles and tavern signs, not to mention the red, white and blue candlesticks phones, just kind of depressed.  Yes, we loved the nation, but what about us?  We the people?  Now what?

I mean you can’t get geeked about the 201st anniversary of something.  It’s like you wait and wait to get to 18 years old, and then you get to look forward to being 21, and then there is 25 and then, nothing.  No one, except your grandparents and your parents aunats and uncles care when you hit 26.  Nope.  That’s when the ribbing about being over the hill and steaming towards 30 and the end of life start.

Well, that’s kind of how people felt in 1977.  Big freaking deal.

Then, in 1977, ABC launched a juggernaut unto this nation, a miniseries that would change the face of television, Alex Haley’s Roots.  

How big was Roots?  Well, I am 54, and I clearly remember that while most homes in cities had just 13 channels if they had cable at all, 40-45% of all television viewers were tuned into roots.  That was BIG in those days to get a 40-45% share.

Then people flooded the nations libraries, wanting to make that huge find.  Community based genealogy societies that had been quietly working away at what they were doing grew exponentially in membership.  And communities that didn’t have genealogy societies all of sudden found that at least one was forming. 

Everyone seemed to be searching for their “roots,” especially white, middle class people.  It was the thing to do. I know it was because people started using “roots” in place of “genealogy”.  Even as a teenager, when I heard people say “I want to discover my roots,” all I could say to myself was you all understand that this is the story of black people, enslaved, brought here, abused and eventually freed, right?

But even I got involved in the whole fevered event because I couldn’t get answers from either parent.   And I couldn’t have been alone.  I mean back then, what family didn’t have a big box of photographs?  We all had them, and we all got into them.  And we all had this conversation with our parents:

Child: “Mom/Dad who is this?

Parent: “Who said you could get into that?” -or- “Some relative,” -or- “I think that it cousin Blah Blah and a friend,” -or-  Go ask your grandmother”

So many of our parents had no idea who anyone was.  And some of our grandparents had come here to forget

Child: “Grandma, where did you come from”

Grandmother: “I came from the old country.”

Child: “Where was that?”

Grandmother: “Here, eat this.”

And that was all you got.  Evasion and stuffed cabbage.  And if you went to the globe and looked for the old country, it was nowhere to be found.  USSR, da. 

I mean I grew up with a Jewish father and Methodist Episcopel raised mother.  My mother would watch Nicholas and Alexander on the Saturday Night movie and say “This is so sad, it won’t end well.”  My father’s sister, who translated for my father’s mother would say “Don’t bother grandma, she when she watched Nicholas and Alexandra, the good part is coming up.”

White people didn’t have a miniseries about them, I mean us.  Never mind that all American history to that point was basically white people history.  No, all we had were John Jake’s novel series that launched off his book The Bastard, with its noble men and full breasted women.   And white people wanted in on this meaningful journey that Alex Haley had taken.  Or they wanted to join the DAR because they served tea and cookies.

In 1977, we didn’t have an internet or home computers.  We had public libraries, so that’s where people swarmed.  And we were usually disappointed by what we found.  The courthouse was another place to search, but that meant going downtown.

So we focused on what we could get and get easily.  The United States Census. 

One of the first things that people my age learned when we started to dip our toes into genealogy as a hobby was that the U.S. Census was the vital tool to provide proof that someone existed, that they existed in a year, and that they were in fact someone, and that they could be documented.

Most county seat libraries had was an old microfilm reader and a copy or copies of the U.S. Census records for that county.  If not all, they had at least one year, usually mid 1800s. So the pursuit of census records, was fast and furious, but they weren’t indexed.  So many society volunteers divided up a year, say 1880, and indexed the records.  The indexes showed you that John Smith appeared on page 189, or 201 or 357. 

As researchers, we went to those pages, found John Smith and pointed at it, amazingly, and SHAZAM!   QUICK!  Someone get a paper form so we can write down what we have found! There it was!  Our roots!  We were someone!

Or were we?   

I mean, we were so hungry to crave being counted, that many of us just copied down what we found without proving its value.  Very few people were wondering if John Smith was our John Smith, what seldom crossed our minds was: Is that John Smith, or is it Jonathon Smith?  Could it be John Smithe?  Smythe?

Now these are all very logical questions to ask now, but back then we were too busy FINDING OUR ROOTS(!) to take a breath and say “wait a second.  Is that an informed entry, or is it an entry of misinformation?”

Because it was a census, many people took it as gospel truth, because it was an official government census.

What we forgot to consider, and we should still consider, is that the census enumerator would be hired, given some basic training, and sent out into the great unwashed to get answers. 

In tomorrow’s post, I will show you how the best of intentions can go horribly wrong in a census enumeration for one family.